Turkey’s Erdogan Used Social Media He Despised to Stay in Power

What's Next for Turkey After Coup Attempt?
  • Twitter, Facebook live video streamed protests in the streets
  • WhatsApp and Apple FaceTime played key roles in coup attempt

For any coup to succeed, the overthrowing party needs to control the media messaging. For last week’s coup in Turkey, the military failed to tamp down one critical news source: the internet.

On the night of the coup, Turkish citizens received almost all their information through social media platforms, initially only accessible using a VPN to circumvent local restrictions. But once the Turkish government realized social media could act in their favor against the uprising, they lessened the limitations and “boom, our information was coming from the streets rather than TV channels,” said Yaman Akdeniz, a professor at Istanbul Bilgi University.

QuickTake Behind Turkey’s Turmoil

“Nobody seemed to listen to the coup statement and curfew announced from the TRT, the government-owned TV channel which was controlled by the coupsters,” Akdeniz said. “It was not 1980, it is 2016, so smartphones and the internet beat the old coupster tactics.”

Twitter and Facebook -- apps that have often been temporarily blocked in the country -- were home to dozens of live video streams from protests in the streets. On the night of the coup, at 2 a.m. local time, more than 80 streams were active on Twitter’s Periscope platform in Istanbul, compared to 30 in London and two in San Francisco. Even President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has supported much of the blocking, used the iPhone’s FaceTime video chat service from his jet to signal he was alive and still in charge.

“It was deliciously ironic,” said Eva Galperin, global policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group. Erdogan, who once compared social media to a “knife in the hand of a murderer,” has for the past few years shut down networks and jailed journalists and activists for the crime of insulting him, often via social channels. But he seemed to have nowhere else to turn for help in defeating the coup attempt.

"To see him resorting to the same technologies he’s tried to suppress speaks to the power of these technologies," said Rita Cant, a legal fellow at the Center for Democracy & Technology. "It looks like he had no other choice."

Encrypted Chat

It’s possible to shut off communication and social media -- it was done during the 2011 Arab Spring protests in Egypt, for example. But even military officials sometimes need their WhatsApp.

“They’re unwilling to shut down services and take a hit to their own ability to communicate,” said Andrew McLaughlin, the former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer. “These services are incredibly useful to the government as well.”

The plotters of the coup used the Facebook-owned app, which sends encrypted messages over the internet, to organize themselves in a chat group called “yurta suhl b iziz,” which translates to “We are a country of peace,” according to Turkish media reports.

And even if they could shut down the internet, Turkey’s citizens have been so trained by Erdogan to get around blockages, they still may not have prevailed in silencing conversations, the EFF’s Galperin said.

“He made circumventing his censorship rules such an everyday occurrence in Turkey that when the coup did it, they just shrugged and went around again,” she said.

Erdogan also put phone carriers to use. At 2:22 a.m. local time on Saturday, while the coup was still under way, he texted customers of Turkcell Iletisim Hizmetleri AS, exhorting them to “take over the streets and your nation against this narrow cadre.” Hours later, a message from the Turkish government invited Vodafone Group Plc subscribers to celebrate the plotters’ defeat.

Turkcell CEO Kaan Terzioglu told Haberturk TV that the company helped Erdogan and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim get their messages out after coup organizers tried to destroy a satellite-TV facility they were using to reach the public.

Ben Padovan, a spokesman for Vodafone, said the text was “clearly indicated” as being sent by the Turkish state. He declined to discuss the company’s involvement beyond that.

Coup Playbook

Controlling or shutting down access to media channels is a key rule in the coup playbook. That’s what the military did in a 1980 coup in Turkey, when there was one main TV station controlled by the government. But today, many potential channels for unfiltered information exist. 

“Any kind of regime change will be subject to stronger public scrutiny,” said Cant. “It’s not to say that all coups will necessarily be more democratic because of social media.” 

While there is evidence to suggest that social platforms were pivotal in saving Erdogan, it could be more accurate to say it was a partnership of old and new media that made the difference. “There was the combination of the two as a CNN reporter held the phone and broadcast Erdogan speaking" via Apple Inc.’s FaceTime, said Gabriel Weimann, communications professor at Haifa University, Israel. “It was a merging of the old and new in very powerful way.”

Gabi Siboni, a director at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, said he suspects Erdogan’s words being broadcast by traditional media was key to encouraging people to get out into the streets and protest. “I don’t think the role of social media was critical,” he said. “Social media is important, you can go directly to the public. But you need to back it up with classical broadcast capability.”

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